Sun bears debut, tigers return at Zoo Atlanta’s new exhibit

The exhibit — the result of a yearlong construction project surrounding the vacated tiger enclosure — brings back some favorite animals and includes a series of shanties that look like traditional Asian market stalls.

At Friday’s opening, President and CEO Raymond King said he hoped the educational displays would drive home a strong conservation message about wildlife trafficking.

“There’s a story being told along the path, and it’s critical because wildlife used for clothing, medicines, food and pets affects a lot of different and rare species,” he said. Most of the animals on display in the exhibit are examples of illegal trade and trafficking. For instance, the Sumatran tigers are prized for the medicinal properties of their bones.

Xander and Sabah, a pair of Malayan sun bears new to Zoo Atlanta, are the heart of the exhibit. If their behavior is any indication, they’ve already been inspired by their new home in the South. During their quarantine period, they were observed mating.

The zoo was recently given a green light on breeding the bears from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association’s Species Survival Plan. Though the animals were on contraceptives while on exhibit at their former home at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, they never consummated their relationship.

“So there’s a slim chance the female is pregnant now,” said Rebecca Snyder, curator of mammals.

“These animals do not breed well in captivity, and we’re really excited that we have a breeding recommendation for this pair. We’re hoping to be successful and have a cub here.”

Snyder said the animals have trouble reproducing simply because they rarely mate.

Besides the addition of the two sun bears, tigers Chelsea and Kavi will be back on exhibit as well as a clouded leopard, three Asian tortoise species and a pair of wreathed hornbills that haven’t been on display in 10 years. New vantage points include a large treehouse-like lookout with panoramic views of the sun bears and tigers.

“We started out renovating our existing tiger holding building and decided to make a go for [something bigger],” said Dwight Lawson, Zoo Atlanta’s senior vice president of collections, education and conservation. “We got a lot of bang for the buck by zoo standards.”

Lawson said the project’s first phase cost $1 million.

“We’ve done a number of smaller things in the past few years, including meerkats, warthogs, naked mole rats, the parakeet aviary, but we’ve been building to this.”

Construction for the second phase of the project will begin in the fall, with exhibits devoted to small carnivores, such as bush dogs, opening in the spring.

The zoo is hoping this first round of upgrades will boost attendance.

“The timing is great,” King said. “The aquarium’s going to be a while before their new dolphin exhibit goes up, and it’s been a while since the Atlanta Botanical Garden had their new unveiling, so there’s not a lot of competition right now in new things to do while the kids are out of school.”

This is the first exhibit opened under King’s leadership. He started work June 1.

“Atlantans expect new things, and we’re on a mission to keep things new,” King said.

Zoo Atlanta

9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 9:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. $19.99 adults; $15.99 seniors; $14.99 children; children 2 and younger are admitted free. , 404-624-5936.

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